The Hejazis of the West coast pride themselves on being the more intellectual, cultured population of Saudi Arabia. Undeniably, the Hejaz has been more open to the rest of the world then the central Nejd region, thanks especially to the large influx of pilgrims from the rest of the Arab world, many of whom settled in Mecca, Jeddah or other towns of the region. But by 1925, when the then independent Kingdom of Hejaz was incorporated by King Abdulaziz, the region was still pitifully underdeveloped in comparison to other ex-Ottoman provinces. The great development of the Western Region has taken place under Saudi rule.
Jeddah has the most lively art scene of the Kingdom, but, curiously, the breeding ground of the wave of Saudi contemporary art that has grabbed international attention took place in a small mountain town, Abha, in the early 1990s. The then governor of the Asir province of which Abha is the capital, Prince Khaled al Faisal, is himself a painter, and he took several cultural initiatives. The most important one was Al Miftaha arts village, which he established on the outskirts of Abha to provide studio space for artists and a place to meet.
This is where Abdulnasser Gharem, Ahmed Mater and a few other artists decided they had to become more socially involved as artists. This led to the seminal exhibition Shatta (disembodied) in Jeddah in 2004—well described by Henry Hemming in his monograph on Abdulnasser Gharem—and public performances by Abdulnasser Gharem in the Asir and Jizan, followed by more daring art using novel techniques by both artists, soon joined by other young Saudi artists.
Al Miftaha closed in 2011, but the Asir remains one of the cradles of contemporary artists. Which is surprising, given its rural nature and socio-economic stagnation; for a long time it was the most neglected province of the Kingdom, though the Saudi government is investing in it now. Most Asiri artists who can afford it move to Jeddah, to participate in its more open art scene.
Jeddah received a major cultural impetus when Mohammed Said Farsi was elected its major in 1972. Farsi was an avid collector of Egyptian modernists (his collection sold for 6.7 million dollars at Christie’s in 2010) and he used the city’s share of sudden oil wealth to transform it into an open-air museum. During the 1980s and 90s, the city’s art scene remained relatively alive despite the contrary winds blowing from Riyadh, leading to the establishment of several art societies and foundations.
The Al Mansouria Foundation became the most important of Jeddah’s art institutions, thanks to the patronage of Princess Jawaher. The Foundation supports a residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, and its erstwhile director Mona Khazindar became the director of the Institut du Monde Arabe in March 2011. The Al Mansouria Foundation is not very active of late.
The gallery scene in Jeddah was flourishing from the mid 1990s onward, although most galleries are little more than shops where one can buy art, and many close after a few years of operation. Nevertheless, the proliferation of venues (of which the most lasting was certainly Atelier Jeddah) allowed Saudi artists such as Ayman Yossri Daydban and Shadia Alem to live an artists’ life when that was impossible elsewhere in the Kingdom. The opening of Athr Gallery in 2009 brought international gallery standards to Jeddah. Regrettably, it has not been followed by more galleries of similar quality (galleries that support their artists over the long term and help them develop) with the exception of the Syrian, UAE-based Ayyam, which will open a gallery early 2013 in Jeddah. Given the amount of young artists it seems there should be room for more galleries.
Meanwhile the city of Mecca, the historic center of the Hejaz, has been declining in cultural terms. Wahhabi Islam erased the pluralistic religious and intellectual life the city was once known for. The cultural heritage of the city has been largely erased in redevelopment plans to accommodate the ever growing number of pilgrims. Some Hejazis also identify the rivalry with the now dominating Nejd as a cause for the old city’s erasure. However the scale of works required to accommodate more than 3 million pilgrims, who must all perform the same rituals in and around the city within a few days, is unlike any other public works in the world. Some more respect could have been shown for Mecca’s cultural heritage, but could the city’s ancient character have survived the massive influx of pilgrims, with its many complications (tourism/lodging, crowd control, disease control, infrastructure etc) ?
In recent years, Mecca-born artists like the sisters Raja and Shadia Alem—who created a rather hermetic installation for the Saudi Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011—and Sarah Al Abdali have started dealing with the transformation of their city in their art. Raja is a writer and several of her books deal with the lost heritage of Mecca through magic realism, legend and lore. The current developments, whereby the last old quarter of the center has been erased to make way for a five-fold expansion of the holy mosque, surrounded by high-rise luxury hotels and real-estate ventures, are particularly impressive. In the view of most old Meccans, the mystique of the Kaaba is nullified by the grandiose kitsch of the new buildings. Ahmed Mater documents this process in his current project ‘Desert of Pharan’.